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The typical American family has changed dramatically since the days of "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Father Knows Best." Double-income families are now the rule, and fathers are much more involved in raising the children and cleaning house. Reactions to these changes have been diverse, ranging from grave misgivings to a sense of liberation and new possibility. Groups as diverse as Promise Keepers, the Million Man March, and Robert Bly's mythopoetic men's movement tell us that fathers are important. From the fundamentalist right to the feminist left, opinions about the changing nature of the family—and the consequent rethinking of gender roles—have been vehement, if not always very well-founded.
In Family Man, sociologist Scott Coltrane brings a wealth of compelling evidence to this debate over the American family. Drawing on his own extensive research and many fascinating interviews, Coltrane explodes many of the common myths about shared parenting, provides first-hand accounts of men's and women's feelings in two-job families, and reveals some innovative solutions that couples have developed to balance job and family commitments. Readers will find an insightful discussion of precisely how and why family life has changed, what forms it may take in the future, and what new kinds of fathers may be on the horizon. The author firmly places these questions within a broad contextual framework. He provides, for instance, an illuminating history of the family that shows that, far from being a fixed structure, the family has always adapted to changing economic, social, and ideological pressures. And by examining how families operate in a variety of non-industrial societies, he demonstrates that our own notions of gender-specific work and parenting roles are culturally rather than biologically determined, and thus inherently flexible. And indeed these roles are changing. While contemporary American women still perform the bulk of domestic tasks, Family Man gives us decisive evidence that men are becoming increasingly involved in both housework and childrearing. Coltrane argues convincingly that this trend will continue. Given the current economic situation—with two-job households now the norm—and the gradual ideological shift away from restrictive gender roles, more and more couples will find it both necessary and desirable to share the workload. More important, Coltrane suggests that as fathers participate more fully in raising their children and performing traditionally female household tasks, men will themselves be transformed by the experience in profoundly positive ways and American society as a whole will move closer to true gender equity.
Family Man succeeds brilliantly in bringing clarity, perspective, and above all hope to a discussion that is too often shrill, chaotic, and beset with the rhetoric of nostalgia. It shows us not only exactly where the family is today, but where it has been and what it may become.
Parenting in Transition
While shopping for groceries a short time ago, I ran into Terry, a bright and vibrant attorney friend I hadn't seen in several years. As we stood in front of the produce bins, Terry used car keys to entertain a fidgety two year old and described the difficulties of balancing family and career: "I'll bet you can't imagine me as the domestic type, but things have changed since we had Megan. Now all I want to do is stay home and take care of her, and everyone at the office is questioning my commitment to the firm."
Listening to a monologue on the joys of baby care, I marveled at how this fast-track attorney had softened and slowed since we'd last seen each other. I found myself musing about some primal parenting instinct that had caused a profound reordering of priorities. As the conversation went on, I learned that Terry's new domestic commitments carried a steep price. According to colleagues, Terry was no longer considered "serious" about work and had been subtly relegated to a slower and less prestigious career track. The dilemmas Terry was facing are now commonplace for working mothers, but what makesthis story unique is that Terry is a father.
When women sacrifice careers to have children, we consider it normal or even natural. So deep is our belief that mothers ought to value family over paid work, that we hardly give it a second thought when new mothers quit their jobs or cut back their hours of employment. When women approaching 30 still consider their careers to be more important than having babies, they tend to be chastised and labeled selfish. When employed mothers (which is most mothers these days) leave their young children in someone else's care during the work day, neighbors and in-laws still shrug their shoulders and wonder if there isn't something wrong with her. If mothers put their kids in child care to do something for themselves—like take a walk, go to a movie, or socialize with a friend—they are especially vulnerable to attack. As sociologists and psychologists have noted, our culture holds unrealistically high expectations that mothers will sacrifice their own needs for their children.
Compared to the complete self-sacrifice expected of mothers, being a father in our culture carries far fewer burdens. Whereas nineteenth century fathers in Europe and North America were expected to be family patriarchs and stern moral teachers, twentieth-century fathers have been relatively uninvolved in the daily routines of family life. In common English language usage, to father a child means to provide the seed, to donate the biological raw material, to impregnate. Of course, people also expect fathers to be providers, which in the modern context means earning the money to pay the bills. But compare this to our unspoken and taken-for-granted expectations of mothers. To speak of mothering implies ongoing care and nurturing of children. Fathering, on the other hand, has typically implied an initial sex act and the financial obligation to pay.
Looking at the meaning of common parenting terms alerts us to the fact that mothering and fathering are gender-laden activities. What it means to be a woman or a man in our culture has been tied up with, and in a sense created by, what it is that mothers and fathers do within and for families. A woman who spoon feeds an infant, unceremoniously wipes a toddler's runny nose, or tenderly comforts a crying child is seen as exhibiting "motherly" love. In contrast, "fatherly" love is suggested by very different activities: perhaps playing catch on the front lawn; a suppertime lecture about the importance of hard work; or a tense evening chat with a teenage daughter's prospective date. We assume that mothers and fathers are very different, that they do different things with their children, and that these differences are fixed and natural. These assumptions mask the fact that ideas about parenting, and the actual practices of parenting, are constantly changing.
What parents do with and for children, like all forms of human activity, responds to the shifting demands of life within specific social and economic contexts. As the world around us evolves, so do our parenting practices. The simple fact of change is more "natural" than any supposed underlying genetic or spiritual reasons for mothers or fathers to act differently. Despite all the political and religious rhetoric about a mythical past when "family values" were secure, parenting and family life have always been subject to change and are going to continue changing as we move forward into the future. Instead of wringing our hands and trying to recapture some idyllic bygone era, we ought to pay more attention to why the changes are occurring and begin exploring how we can better adapt to them as we struggle to meet the needs of all family members. As the following analysis reveals, the family changes we are facing will be neither easy nor uniformly positive, but they do carry the potential of richer lives for men, more choices for women, and more gender equality in future generations.
New Fatherhood Ideals
At least in the ideal, modern fathering is no longer just procreation and bill paying. For contemporary fathers like Terry, becoming a father means reordering priorities and making a commitment to physically and emotionally care for children. The things Terry talked about in the supermarket—providing routine care for his baby daughter, feeling emotionally connected to her, and wanting to spend more time with her—are the sorts of things we have expected from women when they become parents. In fact, Terry created a stir at his office only because he was the "wrong" gender: he was a father acting like a mother.
According to recent media imagery, Terry is no longer an oddity. Single fathers and male nannies populate TV situation comedies as never before, and muscular men cuddling cute babies are used to sell everything from life insurance to fast food. While there are reasons to be skeptical about some of these idyllic portrayals, the line between fathering and mothering is beginning to blur. Even large scale government surveys are reporting substantial increases in the numbers of fathers who take care of children while mothers work. It is becoming fashionable for fathers to act more like mothers; to shed their privileged outsider status and assume an active role in the routine care of their children. In short, it seems that American fathers are increasingly likely to be nurturing family men rather than the distant providers and protectors they once were.
This book is about men's involvement in families: what its been, how it's evolving, and where it might lead. Is the "new fatherhood" really new? How do men become involved in daily family work and what implications might this hold for the future? To explore these issues, I delve into the intimate details of family life derived from interviews and observations with fathers and mothers in two-job families. I explore who does what, how it feels, and why couples divide work as they do. I also look at survey questionnaires from people all across the country to see which patterns are typical and how much things are really changing. Do current trends represent a passing fad or a fundamental realignment of family roles? Tracing historical developments and using information from different cultures, I also explore why and how larger shifts in the culture and the economy shape families and how divisions of family work shape and are shaped by gender relations. Along the way, I raise issues about gender equity and address questions that have emerged in recent debates about American family values. Have we lost some primordial gender compass that kept families functioning efficiently for eons, or are we on the threshold of replacing oppressive patriarchal families with more democratic ones? These questions have no easy answers, but we can begin to understand the issues involved by looking at what family scholars have been saying about fathers for the past few decades.
Why Study Men in Families?
Men's involvement in families, or lack of it, is a relatively new topic of concern for researchers and is part of a renewed interest in women's lives led by feminist scholars. My interest in these issues coincided with my own children's births over a decade ago. Unsatisfied with a peripheral role in their upbringing, I changed jobs several times, and eventually returned to graduate school to study sociology. While at the University of California, I studied with Nancy Chodorow, who recently had written The Reproduction of Mothering, an influential book on why women mother (and coincidentally, why men do not). Her complex neo-Freudian theory placed much emphasis on the establishment of gender identity within families where mothers do all the child care. She described an unconscious process wherein male children compensate for a deep and painful sense of betrayal by the mother through their rejection of things feminine, including the feminine parts of their own psyches.
Superficially, my own case seemed to contradict Chodorow's theory, insofar as I was raised by a nurturing stay-at-home mother and a distant breadwinner father. If the capacity and motivation for nurturing children is dependent on early childhood experience, then why was I, having been raised almost exclusively by my mother, so interested in being a nurturing caregiver to my own kids? With further study, I learned that Chodorow was suggesting that the capacity for nurturing exists in both boys and girls as a result of early experiences with a parent—usually the mother. It's just that men tend to suppress and devalue the soft and vulnerable parts of their psyches in an unconscious effort to maintain a firm sense of masculinity. But that sense of oppositional masculinity seemed so fragile and insecure to me that it appeared to be an oppressive trap. From my own experiences of personal growth as a child care worker in college, I wondered if caring for children might not provide other men with opportunities for fuller emotional lives. Could men reclaim a more complete sense of manhood that was not based on rejecting the softer or more "feminine" sides of themselves? That question led me on a search for the reasons why men might be drawn to caring for their children and into the realm of the sociology and social psychology of gender and families.
I was impressed by Chodorow's idea that gender socialization and the formation of masculine and feminine selves, with accompanying patterns of gender inequality in the larger society, were perpetuated through the organization of parenting. I became interested in the social forces that promoted men's assumption of family work and began to study the potential outcomes of involved fathering. I soon discovered that scholars had paid scant attention to fathers before the 1970s. Most psychologists and sociologists had assumed that fathers were peripheral to family functioning, even if their presence was usually deemed desirable. More recently, researchers have begun to help us understand how fathers directly and indirectly influence children and other family members, and how men's family involvements intersect with other aspects of their lives. The few studies that have been conducted with men who are highly involved with their children suggest that fathers can "mother" in the sense that they can interact with and care for infants much like women do. What's more, the children of fathers who share responsibility for the everyday details of their upbringing tend to exhibit enhanced intellectual, cognitive, social, and emotional skills. But a puzzle remains. Despite the potential payoffs of fathers taking a more active role in the family, large-scale surveys still show that most men avoid doing routine child care or housework. What's going on? Why is family work obligatory for women and mothers, yet still optional for men?
Regrettably, most of the popular books on men's changing family roles don't move us very far in answering these questions. With only a few exceptions, books on American fathers have been naively optimistic or bitterly reactionary. In books like Daddy's Home and Good Morning, Merry Sunshine, we learned the intimate details of what it feels like for a reporter to take a leave of absence from his newspaper job to care for his infant daughter—lampooned in the comic strip Doonesbury. We also have a few books by psychologists and social workers who present personal accounts from nurturing fathers struggling to become single parents or attempting to share parenting with their wives. Although these advocates of the "new father" give us a glimpse into the innner lives of nurturing men and provide some useful advice to men who want to care for children, their analyses typically leave women out altogether. By focusing only on the men, and by ignoring most of the larger social, political, and economic contexts and consequences of their actions, these authors fail to give us a complete picture of men's family roles. At the other end of the spectrum, we have men's authors like Robert Bly, who tell us to toughen up and reconnect with our absent fathers through all-male initiation rites. These reactionary approaches, discussed more fully in Chapter 7, are best understood as a backlash against women's modestly expanding opportunities.
Family Life and Social Change
Looking back over the past few decades in the United States, we see rapid shifts in women's employment and slower, though still significant, shifts in men's family roles. Although the everyday routines of family life appear to be timeless and natural (as well as somewhat trivial), they reveal and foreshadow some of the most dramatic social changes of this century. In 1960, hardly anyone questioned why women did nearly all of the child care and housework. Most women were not employed and three out of four mothers were housewives. During the 1970s, more women entered the labor force, and some began to question why they should continue to do all the domestic chores. Researchers conducting studies in the 1970s were surprised to find that men were still doing little around the house or with children, even when their wives were working outside the home. In the 1980s, about half of mothers with children under 18 had entered the paid labor force, and many observers continued to expect the division of household labor to equalize. Some slight shifts in the allocation of domestic responsibilities did occur during the early 1980s, with women putting in fewer hours than they had a decade earlier. As researchers like Arlie Hochschild documented, however, wives in two-job families continued to remain responsible for the second shift of raising children and running households. Has anything changed since the 1980s? Yes and no. Mothers continue to enter the labor force in record numbers and women still do most of the family work. Nevertheless, important economic and social transformations are underway that will have profound implications for men's involvement in families. In the following chapters, I describe some of these changes, show how they are affecting mothers and fathers, and make some predictions about the future. Before beginning that analysis, however, let's take a glimpse into the life of a couple attempting to share the care of their two children.
Gary and Susan Carter would not strike most people as radical innovators or social pioneers. In dress, appearance, and demeanor, they are virtually indistinguishable from other couples in this quiet neighborhood of young families on the edge of suburbia. The landscape is dotted with trees, swing sets, and horse corrals, and Gary Carter's pickup truck with knobby tires and lumber racks sits in the driveway of their ranch style house. Gary is a 34-year old building contractor who has worked in construction since he graduated from high school in a neighboring town. He looks and acts like most of his "hang-loose" carpenter buddies; walrus mustache, healthy tanned face, casual Hawaiian shirt, and a ready smile. Susan Carter recently earned a Masters' degree in psychology and has been working toward certification as a marriage counselor and divorce mediator. She, too, blends in with her co-workers, though her dress and demeanor are more reserved than Gary's. They have two children, eight-year-old Jennifer, and five-year-old Jason.
For the past four years, Gary and Susan have been sharing the routine care of Jennifer and Jason while they work part-time at their jobs. This is an increasingly common pattern among parents with preschool-aged children. Thirty percent of fathers and over 40 percent of mothers with children under five now work non-day shifts, allowing them to share the care of their children. When the mother works part-time or a non-day shift, the father is now the most common child-care provider for the children. This was the case in the Carter family.
Why Did They Share?
The reasons Gary and Susan gave for sharing child care and employment were typical of those heard from other parents I interviewed for this book. Most said they were simply focusing on what was good for the kids and what was economically feasible. Like many fathers, Gary talked about wanting to "bond" with his kids but worried about earning enough money to support his family. He and Susan worked out an arrangement where they both worked about half time, though both felt that it was a constant struggle to balance their work and family commitments.
Although Gary had been financially successful as a carpenter and contractor, he came to realize that having two earners in the household could be a kind of insurance policy for him and for the family.
From the business standpoint, it started looking down. We were coming off a real unstable economy and it was long-term guess work for me. I wanted to be realistic about it: the next bad times I wanted help financially. So that, at least, was one of my trade offs. The other thing is that, physically, construction is real hard on the body and, I figured I could last longer if I worked three days a week, although it's real tough when everyone else is building five or even seven days a week.
As a result of adopting a three day work week, Gary lost some contracting jobs, was forced to rely exclusively on self-employment, and reduced his income by almost half. Nevertheless, he rationalized his short work week by comparing himself to his contractor buddies who never saw their families and to a few whose marriages "went sour" because they were never home. Gary also admitted that he was motivated to share child care and employment because of his commitment to his wife, Susan. After years of talk and schooling, Gary had come to realize that Susan's desire to become a counselor was not just a passing fancy, but was necessary to her happiness.
Susan wanted to pursue a fulfilling career of her own and talked about feeling limited when she had been the only one with the children on a regular basis. She was adamant in her support for women and men choosing their own paths in life: "People should be whatever and whoever they want and need to be." She referred to women who were forced to be only housewives and men who were forced to be sole breadwinners as "halves." For Susan, the only way for both spouses to become "whole" was to share the family work and the paid work: for mother and father simultaneously to be homemakers and breadwinners.
A major impetus for the Carters' sharing was a belief that many would call "conservative" or "old fashioned." Both Gary and Susan believed strongly that their kids should not be left with "strangers" during the day; that children needed to be with their parents on a regular basis. Gary talked about people abusing child care by "dumping the kids there for ten hours a day" and vowed that he would never do that. He admitted it was difficult to forego regular contracting work to perform child care, but he called his time with his children "precious." When I asked him how it felt to know that he could be earning many times what it would cost to pay a child-care worker to care for his children, he answered, "I wouldn't trade this time with the kids for anything." Saying "they're only small once," he commented that within the year they would both be in school until 2:00 P.M. everyday and that he would "gradually get my work time back." Similarly, Susan commented that she felt her children could have "handled day care just fine," but that she preferred that they be with her or with their father. She made a point of mentioning that many parents had no choice but to rely on day care, but she felt that children fared better in their own parents' care. She attributed their ability to avoid using outside child care to the flexibility of her and Gary's schedules and their strong commitment to be with their kids.
The reactions that Susan and Gary got from most of the people around them were discouraging. Their decision to share breadwinning and homemaking was described as "a little odd" by many friends, and Gary commented that many friends "bet against" them. Gary also felt that Susan's parents, though usually silent, thought less of him because he had relinquished the sole provider role. Gary was seen as less of a man because he cut back on his time at work, and Susan's "maternal instinct" was called into question because she left the kids with Gary rather than "allowing" him to go to work. Gary and Susan also reported ambivalent reactions from neighbors and co-workers, even if most never mentioned the subject directly. According to Gary, most simply "scratched their heads in disbelief."
In discussing how others reacted to their situation, Susan suggested there was a "profound lack of understanding" about their efforts at sharing paid work and family work: "They either don't believe it, or they do believe it and it changes how they relate to us. People are really threatened. Reactions were negative for a really long time, and it took a track record before it started getting more positive." After they initiated their sharing routine, Gary was likely to be at school meetings or other child-centered activities where numerous mothers were present. He soon discovered that most mothers were reluctant to believe he really performed a full range of family work.
At first they'd ask me, "Is this your day off?." And I'd say, "If it's the day off for me, why isn't it the day off for you?" They'd say, "Well, I work 24 hours a day!" And I'd say, "Yeah, right, I got my wash done and hung out, and the beds made, and the shopping done." It would take the mother a couple of times to realize that I really did that stuff.
After repeated contact, however, some mothers began to include Gary in their conversations and occasionally approached him for advice about how to deal with a problem child, usually a son. Gary also reported that he received more attention than he deserved simply for watching his own children. More than Susan, his actions were noticed and praised, even though he considered her the more adept parent. Susan commented, "I can bust my butt at that school, and all he has to do is show up in the parking lot and everybody's all ga-ga over him."
When couples like the Carters share family work and paid work, you might expect that the wife would get similar attention and praise for assuming half of the breadwinner role. Not so, according to Susan. Reactions to her career ambitions were mostly mixed, and she said Gary's parents did not readily accept her as a co-provider.
In the beginning there was a real strong sense that I was in the space of Gary's economic duty. That came from his parents pretty strongly. The only way that they have been able to come to grips with this in any fashion is because Gary has also been financially successful. If he had decided, you know, "Outside work is not for me, I'm going to stay home with the kids and she's going to work," I think there would have been a whole lot more flak than there was. I think it's because he did both and was successful that it was okay.
Although others in their circle of friends were more supportive of their efforts, Susan reported that many still couldn't quite figure out what was going on with them.
It's funny because we both talked about child care plans in terms of, "well you have to ask Gary—that's his day with the kids" or "you better check it out with Susan because the kids will be with her." At school, especially, a lot of people thought we were divorced and were sharing these kids, you know, since we were rarely together because the other person was always at work. So it got to be sort of a joke, "Are you guys really together or are you not?"
Others reported that they admired Susan and Gary's arrangements, but couldn't understand how they ever got there. The reactions the Carters received are similar to reactions other role sharing-couples have reported. As we will see in subsequent chapters, social networks of close-by friends and relatives can easily discourage couples from raising children and doing housework differently from their own parents.
According to Susan, most people assumed it was her fault that Gary was "sacrificing" his career, and since she was still in training and not yet making much money, she felt especially vulnerable to attack. Friends and co-workers saw his contracting business as a huge success and couldn't understand how he could give up that earning potential to "babysit." Susan commented, "I became the bad guy in a lot of circles, and it took Gary a long time to convince people that he really wanted it this way." When I last talked to the Carters, the children were about ready to attend school every day, but Gary still had no plans to go back to work full time. Susan reported that most people had "finally gotten it" that Gary wasn't just going along with her demands, but that he was now fully committed to sharing the family work with her.
Sharing the Worry of Child Care
One of the most interesting findings about families that share child care is that the men go through some personal and emotional changes as they perform more of the mundane child-tending tasks. These changes are not the same for all men, but, for many, the process of routine caregiving fosters more intimate relationships with their children and provides them with opportunities for developing emotional sensitivities. In the Carter family, most of the child care tasks were shared about equally—including awakening their two children, helping them dress, bathing them, putting them to bed, supervising them, disciplining them, chauffeuring them, taking them to the doctor, caring for them when they were sick, arranging for babysitters, playing with them, and planning outings for them. When they began sharing the daily chores associated with raising children, they found that the experience initiated some subtle changes in Gary and the marriage.
Gary began by talking about some initial difficulties he had in watching his children. In the beginning, when he was "on duty," he had some trouble accepting that "just" being with the kids was important work.
It was real hard to learn to sit down and hold them when they were sick. I had to keep telling myself that this is important, you need to be here with them doing nothing. (laughs) Which is the feeling I had— I'm not doing anything—but I was. Eventually those things really paid off with the trust the kids developed in me.
Not only did Gary learn how to "really be there" with the kids, but he also learned how to anticipate potential problems. For example, he talked about how his level of concern for child safety was heightened after he rearranged his work schedule to do half of the parenting.
There's a difference in being at the park with the kids since we went on this schedule. Before it was, like, "Sure jump off the jungle bars. Go for it!" But when you're totally responsible for them, and you know if they sprained an ankle or something, you have to pick up the slack, it's like you have more investment in the kid, and you don't want to see them hurt, and you don't want to see them crying. I find myself being a lot more cautious with them.
Although Susan initiated the child-care sharing plan, she was surprised by Gary's developing competence as a parent. Gary came to the marriage with little knowledge of child development and limited expertise as a caregiver. Nevertheless, Susan described how Gary began to notice subtle cues from the children as a result of being with them on a regular basis. She saw some changes in him that she had not anticipated, and her reaction to sharing the nurturing role with him was sometimes mixed. In part, this was because he became more sensitive and caring than she had expected, and his newfound skills intruded on her previous monopoly over the attentive and intuitive parts of parenting.
I used to worry about the kids a lot more. I would say in the last year it's evened itself out quite a bit. That was an interesting kind of thing in sharing that started to happen that I hadn't anticipated. I suppose when you go into this your expectations about what will happen — that you won't take your kids to daycare, that they'll be with their dad, and they'll get certain things from their dad and won't that be nice, and he won't have to worry about his hours — but then when it starts creeping into other areas that you didn't have any way of knowing it was going to have an impact on. When he began to raise issues about the kids or check in on them at school when they were sick or troubled, I thought, "Where did he get the intuitive sense to know what needed to be done? It wasn't there before." A whole lot of visible things happened.
Talking about Gary's parenting, Susan made it clear that she had to take some risks in the beginning to trust him with the kids. At first, his parenting style was all rough and tumble play and wild excitement, but it didn't take long for him to figure out that there were many other ways that he could interact with the children. Eventually, he developed a full range of parenting skills, including clear limit setting, frequent talks, anticipating needs, and enjoying quiet times. Susan's ability to "let go" and not hover over Gary when he was with the children contributed to his developing competence as an everyday father. Susan summed up her current attitude about Gary's parenting by saying, "I trust him totally with the kids, I don't have to worry about it at all."
The transformation that Gary underwent was significant to all members of the Carter family, but perhaps most of all to Gary himself. He commented that being a father was the top priority in his life right now, and that when people asked him what he did, he would reply "I'm a father." He focused on how the details of caring for Jennifer and Jason had helped him establish a special bond with them. Like many involved fathers I interviewed, Gary said that after he was "on duty" with the kids for a day or more, they would call for him in the middle of the night (rather than their mother). He noted that everyday child care could be a drudgery, but that it led to a sense of fulfillment when he could comfort them after a nightmare or after some other emotional crisis: "It's a good feeling to really know your kids and to have them trust you."
Susan reflected on how Gary had recently even come to share some of her characteristic reactions about leaving the kids. It used to be that when they went away for a weekend before they started splitting the child care, she would have a difficult time leaving the children, and would feel guilty about it. At those times, Gary used to give Susan a "hard time" by saying things like, "Good grief, you go away once a year for two days and you can't even have a good time!" After spending significant amounts of routine time with the children for about a year and half, however, the tables turned. Susan reported that when they tried to go away for a weekend, "He was really antsy about leaving the kids. He had a really hard time saying goodbye."
Even though Gary began to interact with the children in a style that was more sensitive than his earlier behavior, he reminded me that the way he took care of the kids was "like a man." For instance, he talked about enjoying being playful with the kids, and loved going on spontaneous adventures with them. This he attributed to a basic difference in parenting styles between men and women.
For some reason, I really feel that women aren't that flexible with kids. And men seem to be able to say, "Okay if you want to go to the beach, grab your suits and a towel and lets go." Like I'll grab some snacks (laughs)—gotta have food—and we're off. With women, it's like you can't do it without making a big chore out of it: you've gotta plan it all out and take a few changes of clothes, and all this extra stuff, and by the time you get in the car, it's all packed down and it's this big production. I like being able to do that with the kids—just grab a couple of things and go.
Susan also commented that Gary was able to provide the children with a type of love and care that balanced her parenting style. "I've always been the one who's worried about them physically and mentally. Gary tends to be with them, you know, just however they are. It's sort of a more open naive approach, just accepting, which is really nice for the kids." Susan described herself as tending to worry about the "business stuff"—like practicing piano regularly and making sure their homework was done right. About herself, she said, "I don't play as well with them in terms of just getting into whatever they want to do. He's really good at that." She went on to praise his ability to "really be with them," rather than focusing on what else they should be doing or what needed to be done next.
Gary and Susan had worked out a division of child-care labor that left more of the fun activities to Gary. I wondered what impact this might have on their relations with each other and with the children and how they felt about it. Whereas Susan explained this division on the basis of personality differences, Gary relied on assumed generic differences between men and women. Like the other couples I interviewed, the Carters were continually negotiating unique arrangements that fit their specific personalities and drew on their notions of the way things should be. Since most people gain a profound sense of purpose and belonging from their family membership, and because their family identities are tied up with what they do for the family, negotiations over who does what often carry symbolic meanings far beyond the surface content of the tasks involved.
In the Carter household, Susan justified the expense of her training, the hours away from her children, and Gary's foregone earnings, because they enhanced her future earning potential. Perhaps to allay some guilt, she also mentioned that she and her husband played different roles as parents and that her children would benefit from having both of them intimately involved in their upbringing. She was grateful that Gary was able to assume many of the hours of child care and she appreciated that he was now sharing some of the worry. On balance, she did not feel that her role with the children had been displaced: "I'm still the mom." Gary agreed that Susan had a special and irreplaceable relationship with the children and gave her credit for being the "better communicator." He still relied on her occasionally to solve sibling disputes or to help him talk through an issue so that he could figure out his feelings. The child care was the easy part, according to the Carters, for that is what motivated their attempts at sharing in the first place. For housework, on the other hand, things did not evolve quite so effortlessly.
Sharing the Burden of Housework
Like most women in America today, Susan Carter reported that she had to frequently instruct and remind Gary before he began to notice and take care of the basics of running a home.
Initially, when it all started out, I think part of him felt like he was doing me a big favor, that he was making this all possible for me. Bottom line was: If I got home and the house was trashed, dinner wasn't made, and the kids were filthy, then it would be easier for me to take my kids to day care somewhere, so that when I went and picked them up they would have been fed and the house would still be clean. All I'd have to do is bring them home, give them a bath, and put them to bed. So I said, "There's a missing piece here, maybe it's time to talk about what it is you do all day when you're at home with the kids." For a long time it was, "Well, I do the kids." "Well, okay, you can only do so much of that and there's other things have to get done." It took a good year for us to fine tune the fact that the wash still had to get done, the dishes still needed to be cleaned up, meals still had to be made; that if we really wanted this to work so that when I got home from work I could have some good time with the kids too, other things needed to be accomplished during the day.
Gary acknowledged that it took him some time to notice what needed doing, and said that there were still disagreements about cleaning standards and timetables. He described himself as "more relaxed about clutter," and said that Susan's housecleaning standards were higher than his. He claimed that "when I get into a cleaning mode, I clean better than she does," but also admitted that she cleaned more consistently. Susan agreed, sort of.
Like most couples I interviewed, Gary's and Susan's descriptions of their task allocation, and their explanations for how their division of labor evolved, differed somewhat. Each spouse sorted cards listing household and child care tasks into five piles according to who most often performed them. Although the overall portrayal of task allocation was fairly similar for both spouses, husbands tended to claim more credit than their wives were willing to grant them. By averaging the responses between spouses, I came up with a middle-ground estimate of who did what for 64 routine household chores.
In the case of the Carters, Susan did more of the housecleaning, including dusting, mopping, tidying, and cleaning bathrooms. Nevertheless, Gary did more of the vacuuming, and tasks like sweeping and making beds tended to be shared about equally. Susan was rated as doing slightly more of the total kitchen work, and more of the menu planning and shopping, but tasks like making breakfast, cooking dinner, washing dishes, and wiping counters were shared about equally with Gary. While the Carters rated Susan as doing more of the ironing and mending, both spouses mentioned that Gary did some of the ironing, and both rated the time-consuming task of laundry as equally shared. Thus, when it comes to the most frequent and repetitive housework tasks like cooking, washing, and vacuuming, we can see that the Carters shared more than most couples, though their sharing was not an even 50-50 division. During the interviews, when Susan was asked what she liked best about Gary's housework, she replied, "That he does half of it."
Unlike most couples we interviewed, the Carters also shared many of the outside chores and other miscellaneous household and family tasks. For instance, while Gary was more likely to fix something on a broken car, Susan was more likely to wash the cars and take care of routine auto maintenance, such as arranging for periodic tune-ups. Susan did more general yard work and gardening, but Gary mowed the lawn. Susan paid the bills and handled the taxes, but both took care of insurance and investments. Also unlike most couples we interviewed, the Carters were equally likely to perform "kinkeeping" — writing, phoning, and visiting relatives or friends — as well as initiating and planning couple dates and social get-togethers.
How did these task divisions come about? Was it an easy process or a constant struggle? According to Susan, it took months, and sometimes years of effort to reallocate the household chores in this manner, but once they had a system in place they gained more appreciation for what the other had to do. For instance, Gary talked about how assuming more responsibility for housework motivated him to encourage Susan to buy whatever she needed to make housecleaning easier.
It was real interesting when I started doing more housework. Being in construction, when I needed a tool, I bought the tool. If I needed to work on a table saw, I went out and bought a good table saw. And I really realized— and I think I enjoyed it — that when most women buy a house cleaning tool or whatever, I mean, like when they go to buy an iron, they shop and shop and get the $5.95 model. I mean it's the cheapest thing they can get. But when I vacuum floors, I looked at this piece of shit, I mean I can't vacuum the floor with this and feel good about it. It's not doing a good job. So I got a good vacuum system. If I'm going to vacuum, I'm going to vacuum right. So I have more appreciation for the details of house cleaning. When I clean the tubs, I want something that is going to clean the tubs; I don't want to work extra hard. You know, I have a special kind of sponge to use for cleaning the tubs. So I have more of an appreciation for what she had to do. I tell her, "If you know of something that is going to make it easier, let's get it."
One of my colleagues who was reading interview excerpts commented that Gary's attitude toward housework was a bit on the macho side. Nevertheless, his comments show he was redefining housework in terms he could understand and accept. He was starting to "own" it. As I discuss more fully in Chapter 3, housekeeping and child care often remain within the province of the wife, even if the husband begins to help out by performing some tasks. If the wife is always making lists for the husband and must continually remind him to do chores, she retains responsibility for being the household manager. In some areas, the Carters had begun to transcend such manager-helper dynamics. Gary began to assume full responsibility for the tasks that were mutually designated as primarily his. Rather than being forced to accept lower standards in return for "help," Susan Carter was quite satisfied with Gary's efforts, at least on the two chores mentioned above. For vacuuming and cleaning the tubs, he may even have increased the previous standards in the Carter household. Significantly, Gary Carter tackled them in a fashion that was comfortable for him — "using the right tool for the job."
The Impacts of Sharing on the Marriage
The Carters also demonstrate how sharing the family work can affect the husband-wife relationship. Just as Susan observed that Gary had become more sensitive since he began doing more child care, Gary talked about changes in Susan since she had gone back to school and was now committed to pursuing her career.
Ya know, it's hard to relate to the other side until you're there. I would come home and be dead tired and probably cranky, and when the phone rang and I had business, when I was on the phone it was [very animated] "Oh hi! How are you doing?" and when I put the phone down I was cranky again. It was funny the other day she did the same thing. She came home kind of down and out and somebody she had to perk up for was on the phone and I just kind of laughed and said, "Yeah, you've got that phone voice down too." It's hard not to worry about that, but I can accept it more because I've been there.
Such convergence of experience between spouses can have a beneficial impact on marriages, but it can also raise some uncomfortable feelings. Because it was previously "her job" to be the sensitive and intuitive one, Susan was occasionally ambivalent about Gary's developing intuition and his growing worry about the kids. At times it seemed as though Gary was ambivalent about Susan's commitment to her career, in part because he worried that she would become too involved outside the family. He talked about how switching to their split schedule was followed by "better talk around the dinner table," yet he sometimes expressed concern and dismay over how much of Susan's time and emotional energy her outside work was consuming.
Gary was eager to have Susan become a co-provider and the two were in the process of working out what future job sharing would mean in terms of their individual careers, their feelings of self worth, and their division of family labor. Gary hoped that when Susan started making more money they could hire someone to help once a week with the housecleaning. Susan talked at length about their shifting parenting and career issues, with each person alternately supporting and questioning what the other was doing.
Gary knows how wrapped up in his career he was when he decided to do this with me, and [as] he sees me doing more and more in my career he worries that I'm becoming like he was, that somehow I'm backing out of the family thing.... He sees that I'm physically not there as much for the kids and he wonders if maybe it's because I'm putting too much into my work. But nothing occupies my thoughts more than my kids.... So we both have a whole lot of concerns of not knowing why or how we're going to do this now. On the one hand, he's beginning to feel like maybe he doesn't want to keep building anymore, but on the other hand, he knows he's good enough, he can still do it. So I'm saying, "If I'm going to be making a fair amount of money, you go do what you want to do, or do something else." It's not like I want to be the total financial provider either—I would never want to take the role that he had, it didn't look like much fun. So now we're talking about how it is that we're going to do this in the future and it may open up some new possibilities.
Thus, while Gary was generally perceived as having made the greater financial sacrifice in the past, Susan was now approaching a position where she would provide some financial cushion and might even be able to give Gary more flexibility in his future career options.
The Carters were not forging a new balance between work and family because they were following some abstract political goals or dogmatic notions of gender justice. They were responding to an unstable economic climate and trying to raise their kids the way they thought was right. Because their actions were alternately scripted and improvised, and because each partner was continually adjusting to the other, their balancing act of shared parenting and economic providing resembled a kind of dance. When they went into their marriage, they both assumed that Susan would be the only one to stay home with the children. Neither entered it thinking they should share everything or try to create some egalitarian new-age gender-blending. In fact, they still disagree about the value of feminism and the women's movement. When asked if women were disadvantaged in our society, Gary answered with a simple "No." For emphasis, he added that he would definitely hire a woman contractor "but only if she was competent." Susan described herself as "no women's libber" in college, but explained that she was exposed to various ideas about sexism and gradually accepted a pro-feminist perspective.
The Impacts of Sharing on the Children
Despite their different attitudes toward feminism, after they gave birth to their first child, Gary and Susan Carter agreed that their daughter Jennifer should be able to do whatever she wanted. Susan commented,
She was a real bright kid and Gary was proud of her, and it didn't matter that she was a girl. Coming from that place of pride, having people say to him "Weren't you disappointed you didn't have a son?" He'd look at them like, "What's that supposed to mean?" So he had some new awarenesses about it too, but they aren't anything like what mine are. Still, they seem to translate into the same kind of values and behavior.
Thus, although Gary did not embrace the political ideals that Susan did, nor use a language of disadvantage to talk about gender relations, he encouraged his daughter to set high goals for herself. In addition, he waxed eloquent when he talked about his kindergarten son's future capacities for fathering. The way he saw it, with a real-life involved father as a role model, Jason was "way ahead of the game" and would easily be able to handle the nurturing aspects of parenting when he grew up and had kids of his own.
Susan also had high hopes for her children, but since she was still somewhat ambivalent about the future fate of feminism, she worried that she was setting her children up for disappointment. In discussing how sharing parenting with Gary might affect her children, she mentioned some positive aspects, but focused on her fear that she might be encouraging unrealistic expectations in her children.
I think it has the potential of making their lives more fulfilling. Jennifer's very nurturing and could do that number, but she also has a real strong drive and she's bright and she ought to do something else in her life too. I think she's going to have a different picture about it than I did, and I worry that if she goes about looking for a mate who's going to be able to share in all that, chances are she's not going to find one; or if she gets a mate thinking she can make that happen, chances are it won't. My concern is that they'll go out there and they'll meet people that won't play by the new rules. It's not fair because it's really my fight. I worry about Jason, too; that I've laid this on him. I have these values that I really believe in, and I raise him to be kind and gentle, but then I send him out there into a tough world, unarmed. Poor kid.
Susan's worries about her children's future prospects raise some interesting issues. Recent research confirms her suggestion that involved fathering does have an impact on children's attitudes about gender. In one study at the University of Michigan, Norma Radin and her colleagues compared children raised in families where couples shared parenting with children raised in more conventional families. Parents and children from various family types were interviewed and given a battery of psychological tests in 1977, when the children were preschoolers (3-5 years old). The parents were interviewed again in 1981, when the children were between 7 and 9 years old. In 1988, the researchers interviewed the children again (when they were 14-16 years old), asking about their views on future employment and family plans. Teenagers raised in families with greater father participation when the children were preschoolers, and those with greater father participation when children were aged 7 to 9, held less traditional views. Teens whose fathers had been involved in routine child care expressed more approval for spouses working full time and sharing childrearing and were more negative about only husbands working with wives staying home to care for the kids. Teens raised almost exclusively by mothers, not surprisingly, had expectations for traditional parenting arrangements themselves.
Although the Michigan researchers confirmed Susan Carter's hunch that her children would have higher expectations for sharing employment, housekeeping, and childrearing with a future spouse, they came to a different conclusion. Instead of worrying about the children raised in shared parenting families, they questioned the ability of children in conventional mother-does-it-all families to adapt to the changing realities of family life. It's likely that children from Ozzie and Harriet type families will be the ones with unrealistic expectations. With almost two-thirds of teenagers expected to be in two-earner families when they become parents, those with attitudes more favorable to sharing paid and unpaid work may be better prepared for the future. The gender flexibility of the shared parenting kids, along with the other benefits of having two involved parents, are likely to outweigh the negative impacts of high expectations for egalitarian relationships.
There is ample evidence that times are changing. Mothers are increasingly likely to be employed when they are pregnant, shortly after they give birth, and throughout their children's school years. Both men and women are waiting longer to have children and having fewer of them. Some women are beginning to make nearly as much money as men, and divorce continues to be common. As I describe in later chapters, these trends are likely to persist. Given these projections, it makes sense that men and women should divide the care of their homes and children more equally than they have in the past.
Excerpted from Family Man by Scott Coltrane Copyright ©1997 by Scott Coltrane. Excerpted by permission.
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